Alibaba’s Jack Ma says African entrepreneurs should learn from failure not success

Delivering inspiration.
Delivering inspiration.
Image: AP Photo/Ben Curtis
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On his first trip to Africa, Jack Ma, the founder of Chinese e-commerce company Alibaba, spoke in Nairobi on Thursday (July 20) about the value of constant learning, the power of the internet, and how the combination of the two can be utilized to solve the day-to-day challenges facing the continent. Ma also spoke about the process of failure, and how that can be a catalyst for innovation and progress.

“You have to get used to failure. If you can’t, then how can you win,” he said, while delivering a public lecture at the University of Nairobi.

Ma, who is special adviser for youth entrepreneurship and small businesses to the United Nations Conference on Trade and Development (UNCTAD), is on a two-day trip to Kenya and Rwanda to share insights with African entrepreneurs. The reception of his trip has been almost fawning in a way that Mark Zuckerberg’s surprise visit last September was not. Floor-to-ceiling posters and billboards featuring his face decorated various venues where he has been speaking in Nairobi. Ma, who also met president Uhuru Kenyatta, was accompanied by a delegation of Chinese billionaires, investors, and real estate tycoons.

From an underdog to one of the richest men in the world, Ma’s story is one that resonates in Kenya. Ma applied for 30 jobs, including at KFC when it opened in his home city of Hangzhou. He was rejected from all of them. Unlike Zuckerberg who created Facebook from his Harvard dorm room, Ma struggled to go to college—he failed the entrance exam three times, and started Alibaba from his apartment.

“I think more people identify with him,” says Sam Gichuru of the Nailab, a Kenyan startup incubator, which Ma visited today.

Ma’s visit coincides with China’s growing influence in Africa, with foreign direct investment from China to Africa growing with a 106% rise in projects last year. Speaking at a panel with the head of the private sector alliance, Ma said that they were scouting for investment opportunities and was looking for partners interested in building logistics centers and those interested in supporting entrepreneurs. In Kenya, a Chinese firm recently completed a new railway connecting Nairobi to the country’s port city of Mombasa. Eventually it will reach Uganda, Rwanda, and the Democratic Republic of Congo.

“We want to make sure that everywhere we go we can build companies for the locals not for us,” Ma said.